how to make a sourdough starter

How To Make A Sourdough Starter

Making a sourdough starter from scratch is such an enjoyable experience. Maybe the whole thing sounds daunting to you, as there are many stories of people meeting failure on their first attempt. Still, with this simple starter recipe and the associated troubleshooting pages, you should do just fine!

how to make a sourdough starter
Total Time
504:00
Difficulty
Easy
Recipes Hero
Simple Tasty Recipes

Ingredients for 1 Servings:

To begin your starter you’ll need:

  • 150 grams water
  • 125 grams bread flour
  • 25 grams rye flour

To complete the production of your starter, you’ll need around one kilo of bread and 250 grams of rye flour.

Total Recipe Time

  • Preparation Time
    01:00

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I appreciate I’m incredibly biased about bread, but I can’t see why anyone shouldn’t make their first starter?! You’ll only need flour, water, time and a bit of warmth. There are no “super recipes” or “professional tweaks”. The process is the same when making any sourdough starter. The difference between this recipe and others is the extra information provided to make this the last sourdough starter recipe you will ever need. All written without any fluff -that’s the idea anyway!

The sourdough natural fermentation process does the work, so it won’t require much effort to get started either. Just 5 minutes once or twice a day. I’m going to show you how to make a sourdough starter, get it active, and once it is nice and vibrant, you’ll learn how to maintain it for your baking needs.

What you’ll need to make a sourdough starter

Bread flour

You can use all-purpose or plain flour to make your starter. However, flour with more protein will be able to sustain a longer rise as it contains more ash content which are nutrients for the yeast and bacteria to consume.

Rye flour

It’s not 100% necessary to use rye flour in your starter, so you can go ahead and swap the rye in the recipe for white flour if you can’t get any. What rye does do, though, is provide extra bacteria and enzymes for the starter to consume. This provides a more active starter that rises higher than one made with 100% bread flour.

Water

Providing your tap water is drinkable and doesn’t honk of cleaning chemicals it can be used to make your starter. If your water is overly chlorinated, try leaving it out for 30 minutes before using it for the chlorine to evaporate.

Scales

I have a tendency to measure my starter feeds by sight. This method works for me, but I recommend that if you want consistency in your starter or if you are building a starter for the first time that you weigh your ingredients. Using scales is the best way to get accurate measurements. If you don’t have a set, these scales from MyWeigh are perfectly suited to all types of home baking.

Container and lid

Your starter container can be any food-safe container. You will need to cover the starter with a loose-fitting lid or plastic wrap. The lid should be tight enough so insects can’t protrude (a tea towel won’t work -from experience!), but loose enough to allow oxygen to enter and so carbon dioxide gas produced by the levain can escape. Plastic wrap works fine here, as does a jam jar tightened with only a quarter turn. Many bakers like using Kilner jars to store their starter as they come with a lid that can be loosened. Again, this is a perfect solution and looks pretty cool too!

How long does a sourdough starter take to make?

Scientifically a starter can be ready in 7 days. This is providing optimum conditions are in place. Most starters take around 2-3 weeks to become fully active. Warmer conditions accelerate the time it takes to mature. It shouldn’t take any longer than a month to produce a vibrant starter from scratch. Take a look at some of the methods in the why my starter is not rising article if you run into any issues.

Where to keep your new sourdough starter

The bacteria and yeast inside your starter operate best when they are warm, so storing your starter in a warm place as it matures makes sense. The ideal temperature range of your starter should be between 25-38C (77-100F). The starter should be kept at a constant temperature to allow the same enzymes to multiply in the culture. This is obviously a challenge, especially in cool climates or winter. You could get yourself a home proofer, yoghurt maker or make your own proofing box where you can set the fermentation temperature accurately. Many other solutions involve items you might already own, such as using your oven or microwave with the light on. These methods don’t provide perfect temperature control, but they will keep your starter warm, and that’s good enough! See how to warm a sourdough starter to find out how they work.

If you can’t achieve a constant temperature or quite get as warm as 25C (77F) it won’t cause a big issue. You can still make a healthy culture. Just try to keep your starter above 20C (68F).

Once you have built your starter into an active levain, you can keep it in the fridge to save feeding it every day. I have a guide on how to reduce sourdough discard.

Step-By-Step Method For This Recipe

Make the sponge

Place a medium-sized bowl on your scales and take note of the weight, you’ll need this later! Zero the scales and measure 150 grams of water, followed by 125 grams of white flour, and 25 grams of rye flour. Mix the ingredients with a spoon (fingers work fine also!) to remove the clumps of flour and produce a fairly even paste. It should take 1-2 minutes. Cover the container with a lid or plastic wrap and place it in a warm place for 2-4 days.

Leave your starter until bubbles appear and then die down

If it’s warm enough, the next day you might see lots of bubbles appearing. Your starter is creating gas already, which is exciting stuff, yeah? But don’t get too carried away, these bubbles are just temporary. To make an active starter, it’ll look worse in the next few days, before it gets better!  

Bubbles are visible on day 2
Wait until the bubbles start to die down. This will be after 2-4 days. Now you are ready to make your first refreshment.

First refreshment

1st refreshment

Pop your container on the scales and deduct the weight of the container (noted in the first step). Remove and throw away around ¾ of your starter so you have 50 grams of starter remaining in the container.

Discard the starter

Then weigh in 60 grams of water, 40 grams of white flour and 20 grams of rye flour. Stir until no lumps remain again. 

After 1st refreshment

Cover and leave in your warm spot.

Add flour and water

Don’t be tempted to eat your starter during this time. The bacteria it contains can make you ill, so it’s best to wash your hands and surfaces thoroughly after each refreshment and avoid touching your face.

Middle stage refreshments

After 24 hours, your starter should be bubbling again. You may even notice that it rises! If it does rise continue with the next step, otherwise repeat yesterday’s refreshment every 24 hours until you do.

Now your aim is to feed it when it is at the peak of the rise. You can tell when a starter is peaking as its top surface is flat, not cone-shaped. When it is about to collapse, it will drop from the centre first.

This starter is about to drop

Monitor it each morning and evening to check if it is peaking. If it rises too long between feeds it’ll collapse, which isn’t a major problem but try to avoid letting it collapse too often as it weakens the starter.

I recommend that you change the ratio of ingredients so you can slow down the starter a little. You don’t want to be feeding it several times a day! The refreshment recipe is now, 20 grams starter, 20 grams water, 30 grams white flour and 10 grams rye flour. This will make a thick starter, if it’s too dry you can increase the water to 25 grams.

If it hasn’t peaked, allow it to rise a while longer before feeding it. If you can’t wait for it to peak, it’s not too much of a problem to feed it early. It’s better to feed it early than leave it to peak for so long that it collapses. You can also pop the starter in the fridge for a day if you are going away. The refrigerator will slow down activity to give you some flexibility. Still, as it makes the yeast, bacteria, and enzymes almost dormant, prolonged chilling is not recommended when building up activity.

For the next few days, continue making refreshments daily with the same recipe. You’ll start to see it clearly rising and doubling in size. It will be attracting yeast bacteria and producing organic acids during this time. Expect the rate it rises to go up and down during the first week. Don’t worry if this happens, it’s just the enzymes adjusting to the changing environment.

Continue daily or if it’s warm where you are you could be feeding it two or three times a day. Your rising starter might look ready at this point as it has lots of bubbles, you might be tempted to see if it floats in water. Those are signs of a healthy starter, but the most important factor of its maturity is the smell. An immature starter won’t have much of a smell. Once mature it will have powerful earthy, alcoholic, acidic and grainy aromas. You won’t be able to miss it!

How to tell when a starter is ready to use

A ripe sourdough starter will have large bubbles running through it that break the surface. It should have a deep, sour and slightly alcoholic smell that’s definitely not rancid, vinegary or like nail polish remover. If the smell isn’t enjoyable, it’s not ready! A ripe starter will triple in size. If it is runny and especially warm, it will peak after being refreshed in around 4 hours. If it’s denser and/or cooler, this will take up to 12 hours.

Continue feeding until these factors are showing as they are all critical. Once they are, you’ve done it. You’ve made your own sourdough starter from scratch! Try my beginner’s sourdough recipe to make your first loaf.

How to tell when a starter is ready to use

What is a ripe sourdough starter?

A ripe sourdough starter will have large bubbles running through it that break the surface. It should have a deep, sour and slightly alcoholic smell that’s definitely not rancid, vinegary or like nail polish remover. If the smell isn’t enjoyable, it’s not ready! A ripe starter will triple in size. If it is runny and especially warm, it will peak after being refreshed in around 4 hours. If it’s denser and/or cooler, this will take up to 12 hours.
Continue feeding until these factors are showing as they are all critical. Once they are, you’ve done it. You’ve made your own sourdough starter from scratch! Why not try my beginner’s sourdough recipe to make your first loaf?

Extra Tips For This Recipe:

How to use a sourdough starter

When ready to use your starter, wait at least 3 hours after it is refreshed and remove the desired amount for the recipe. Then complete a refreshment with the remaining starter. As long as there is some starter left in your container, you will be able to refresh it

How to increase the amount of starter

If you want to make a larger batch of dough or just need more starter for your recipes, double the refreshment recipe or use the same ratios of ingredients to increase the size of your feeds. If you need to increase the size of your starter, you may need to do this over multiple feeds.

How to keep a mature starter

Once your starter is active, you have three options:

  1. Continue feeding twice a day
  2. Feed once a day by increasing the ratio of fresh flour in your refreshment recipe
  3. Store it in the fridge

See my mature starter feeding methods guide to keep your starter in the fridge.

How to prevent sourdough discard waste

Realistically, you can’t avoid discarding your starter. Not doing so would mean increasing the size of your starter, and to maintain the starter recipe ratio you would have to use a lot of flour! Your starter would be massive! What you can do is store your starter in the fridge when ripe and use some of it in sourdough discard recipes.

Ripe sourdough starter


Thick vs runny sourdough starter

A thicker starter will require more water in the bread recipe to match the hydration. It also leads to a more powerful levain as 50 grams of a dense starter will arguably have more leavening properties than a runny one, purely because there is less water. A thicker starter will taste more yoghurty than a runnier one, as it contains fewer Lactic acids. That said, acetic acid can also produce gas, so a starter that produces less acetic acid won’t rise as quickly. Yeah, sourdough science can be confusing! See how to make sourdough more (or less) sour if you are looking for ways to change the flavour.

Adding all this up, my view is that a thicker starter is slower to rise, but makes bread rise faster when weighed and added to the dough recipe. Here’s a video that I don’t totally agree with but come to the same conclusion with an alternative view on why a thick starter is best.

To thicken or thin the starter, add extra or remove some water. Changes to hydration will become noticeably more drastic over 2-3 feeds as the starter becomes more or less wet.

Can I use the float test?

This is an important topic that I love to talk about. The float test is when a teaspoon of starter is dropped into a glass of water. If it floats, then according to the method, it is ready. The test is not accurate and not needed. Flour has different densities, and sourdoughs can be wet or stiff, so the float test can produce misleading results.

How long after feeding my starter do I wait to make bread?

The longer you wait after feeding will increase the concentration of wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria. Though the starter doesn’t need to be at the peak of its rise. After feeding, I usually wait at least 3 hours before using it. A starter used when at its peak is more powerful and acidic.

What is the Motherdough method?

Your main sourdough starter is called the “Motherdough”. Once a motherdough is established it can be kept in the fridge and refreshed weekly, or less frequently. The day before you are ready to bake, remove a portion from the motherdough to refresh. This becomes the starter you use to make your sourdough bread.

Troubleshooting your sourdough starter

Maybe you can’t get your starter to rise, or it’s been neglected for a while? If so, take a look at my sourdough troubleshooting page; why is my starter not rising. It provides several tricks to boost activity in your starter and a bit of the science behind the method in this starter recipe.

Conclusion- Using your sourdough starter

That’s the end! You now know how to start, build and maintain a brand new sourdough starter. I hope you give it a go and keep it for years! If you are a sourdough beginner, I recommend following this sourdough bread recipe for beginners. If you have any problems with your starter, hop over to the sourdough troubleshooting guide, which covers many of the issues you are likely to face. You are also invited to use the comments section at the bottom of the page. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few faqs!

Frequently asked questions about making a sourdough starter

If my starter doesn’t triple in size, can I still use it?

Providing there are some bubbles and a rise, the starter can be used to make bread. If the starter doesn’t triple in size the bread will just take longer.

Do I want my sourdough starter to be runny or thick?

Thinner starters are faster to activate, some bakeries use a liquid sourdough as their mother levain. These raise bread faster but they will need to be refreshed regularly. A thicker starter is preferred for home bakers.

How often should I feed my starter?

Left at room temperature, sourdough should be fed when it rises. Depending on how much fresh flour is used to feed it and the temperature the starter is kept at this will be between once and three times a day.

What if I’m not home to feed my starter?

If you are going to miss a feed or two, put it in the fridge after refreshing it. On return, take it out of the fridge and warm it up. If it doesn’t peak within 12 hours, feed it will equal quantities of starter, flour and water.

Can I go on vacation without killing my starter?

Give the starter a feed at a ratio of 1:8:10 starter, water and flour, then put it in the fridge. The sourdough will have enough food to slowly consume for a couple of weeks. If you leave it for several weeks your starter will need a few refreshments to return to its previous levels of activity.

Can I use different flours to feed/refresh my starter?

Sourdough prefers the same ingredients to allow the same bacteria inside it to multiply. Using different flours upsets the balance and weakens it. A sourdough starter is best to feed with the same flour each day but it’s better to feed with something instead of letting it starve.

Can I change my starter to a different flour permanently?

Yes, if you want to permanently change the flour of your sourdough starter, just change it. After a couple of days of regular feedings, the bacteria will adjust and you’ll have a strong sourdough again.

Why is rye flour added to a starter recipe?

The minerals found in the ash of whole wheat and rye flours will slow down the rate of lactic acid activity which allows the enzymes to strengthen. This makes the starter more powerful than a 100% white flour sourdough.

Sourdoughs containing whole grains are more resistant to undesirable conditions. This makes them a perfect choice to include in your starter recipe if following a zero-waste starter feeding method.

Should I use bread flour or all-purpose to make a starter?

Whilst you can use all-purpose flour to make sourdough bread, for the starter use bread flour if you can. The higher amounts of gluten increase the minerals and bacteria. These boost and develop wild yeasts and lactic acid to create a more powerful levain.

Can I use other flour for sourdough starters?

Yes, they can. It is common to trade a portion of white flour with wholemeal or rye. It provides a slightly nutty, deeper aroma. You can separate the sourdough and have multiple mother doughs if you like.

Do I have to discard my starter every time I refresh it?

The reason a portion of the sourdough starter is discarded before refreshment is to reduce the amount of flour and water needed to feed it. A no discard method would result in too much sourdough.

Where do I keep my starter when I’m not using it?

Unless you are using it every day, it’s best left in the fridge and fed weekly. The day before you make bread, take a portion out to refresh.

Can I make whole wheat bread with this sourdough starter?

Yes, but making a 100% wholemeal starter is preferred as it contains the same bacteria.

It’s been 3 weeks, why is my sourdough starter not ready yet?

Never start again! This is a common occurrence, to fix it, first warm it up or look at my sourdough starter is not rising post.

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